As Heston Blumenthal and his inventive creations become increasingly admired and replicated by chefs the world over, Becky Paskin asks whether molecular gastronomy is the future of cooking
It’s a shame we couldn’t all be as lucky as Jay Rayner or Alex Zane and be invited to one of Heston Blumenthal’s Great Feasts. The Fat Duck chef has been twisting diners’ expectations for the past four weeks with his theatrical and inventive take on some of the most extravagant dishes in history.
Some of the cooking techniques he’s been using to ensure the taste and texture of the dishes mirror his often wacky vision are trail blazing; a far cry from the familiar classical French techniques handed down by generations of world-renowned chefs.
And yet a good portion of Channel 4’s audience on a Tuesday night, an average of 2.6 million, would already have been somewhat aware of the techniques he uses, most likely because the chef heading up their local restaurant is now employing one or another.
The use of speciality ingredients and progressive cooking techniques have trickled their way down through cookbooks and word-of-mouth from highly regarded chefs like Ferran Adria, Pierre Gagnaire and Grant Achatz to name a few, to reach some of our high street kitchens.
Indeed, specialist ingredient supplier MSK has seen a rise in sales of its products over the past two years, and managing director Stefan Priest has seen his client base expand from primarily Michelin-starred restaurants such as The Fat Duck, Le Gavroche and Le Champignon Sauvage to lesser known restaurants looking for different ways to jazz up their menus.
"I think now that there’s more information about these ingredients, people have stopped viewing them as chemical additives and realised they are as natural as they can be,” he adds.
But whether it`s for the sake of being progressive, the desire to be creative, or simply through boredom of tried and tested techniques, chefs across the country are now welcoming a once formidable concept.
For Marc Wilkinson, head chef at Fraiche in Oxton, Cheshire, the use of innovative cooking techniques is a way to spice up the daily routine.
“It can get a little bit monotonous sometimes in the kitchen,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and I find that using new techniques refreshes you and gives you another angle to work at, instead of sticking to traditional methods all the time.”
Foaming at the mouth
Many chefs have opted to start their progressive cooking journey by decorating their dishes with relatively cost-effective flavoured foams, using speciality ingredients like leicithin, hy-foamer or whipping guns. But for some, molecular gastronomy is just like any other technology, progressing at a rapid pace that is difficult to catch up with.
“We have had to move away from foams because they’ve been done now,” Wilkinson continues. “The cutting edge places like El Bulli won’t be doing them now - there are so many other techniques and products on the market. Originally with gels for example, the most popular product was agar agar because you can do a warm jelly with it, but now with so many products like gellan and methocel we can get different textures, different mouth feels, and different temperatures. We can now have a hot chocolate mousse, or even a jelly that sets when it’s hot.”
While Wilkinson has progressed onto creating more advanced dishes using expensive equipment such as the anti-griddle, a cooktop that freezes purees and sauces at -30 degrees instead of cooking them, chefs embarking on a molecular gastronomic adventure for the first time should refrain from rushing out to spend £3k on a piece of equipment. Chefs should instead start small, and bear their restaurant’s clientele in mind to avoid distancing their customers who may not want, or even be ready for such progressive cooking. God knows the regulars at Little Chef in Popham were not ready for Blumenthal’s scrambled egg made with Earl Grey tea.
“When people eat out of home they expect the wow factor, but chefs using this technology need to know what their clientele is,” says Vicky Enderson, development chef at MSK. “While the Little Chef boss Ian Pegler was pushing for imitations of Heston’s dishes, the menu was not the right one for his clientele. Do the people that stop at a Little Chef really want a Lancashire hot pot with an oyster in it? I wouldn’t want to pay £15 for a main course when the reason you stop at a Little Chef is when you’re on a tight budget. Heston putting bowls of dry ice on the menu was never going to work.”
Joe Sharratt, head chef at Trinity in Clapham embraces the progressive style of cooking but only to a certain extent, explaining that their customer base and kitchen staff is vastly different to The Fat Duck’s.
“I very much get inspiration from Heston’s and Adria’s cookbooks, but as The Fat Duck has a chef brigade of 300 and we’re much smaller, we don’t take too much from them – it’s too complicated for us to handle,” he laughs.
One technique Sharratt has embraced with passion is sous-vide – the slow cooking of food in a vacuum-packed bag in a temperature controlled water bath - which he says is more to achieve a consistent end result than to be pioneering.
“It gives you much better control over your end product, and on a busy 100 covers service you know exactly how long it takes to cook, and exactly the way it’s going to come out at the end. It gives us control, a really great consistency in the kitchen, and I see this style of cooking as the way the industry is going. While at the moment it’s not completely widespread, I think in 10 years it’s going to be common place to use all these methods.”
Fifty years ago the idea of using an industrial temperature controlled water bath, usually built for use in laboratories, to slow-cook food was ludicrous. Now some of the most famous chefs in the world, including Paul Bocuse, Thomas Keller, Joel Robuchon and of course Blumenthal, swear by the technique, and are beginning to influence other chefs to progress the way they cook as well, a fact summed up nicely by Grant Achatz , chef/owner of Alinea in Chicago and incidentally co-inventor of the anti-griddle:
“A lot of what we do is a reinterpretation of known techniques and ideas. Technology allows us creativity and through it we try and make something great even better. And it lets us get to the essence of the food. If you do it right, it allows you to be truer with flavour. It’s like transitioning from cooking everything on a big open flame to a saute pan on a burner. If done properly the end result either way is a beautiful piece of meat. It’s just the way we get there is different.” Watch Achatz explain some of Alinea`s cooking techniques here.
Who`s doing what and how?
Joe Sharratt, head chef at Trinity, Clapham
Speciality dish: Pork belly with rosemary, garlic and thyme slow cooked in a water bath for 20 hours.
Equipment of choice: Water bath & Vacuum packer
“Seal a pork belly with rosemary, garlic and thyme in a bag using a vacuum packing machine. Place the joint in a water bath at 68 degrees for 20 hours. Cooking a joint for that long in a controlled environment breaks down all the connective tissue into gelatine, so you get this amazingly moist succulent piece of meat - something that couldn’t happen in a normal oven because you can’t get the temperature that low and constant, it would over cook.”
Izu Ani, head chef at Vanilla, London
Speciality dish: Sticky Toffee Pudding
Equipment of choice: Dry ice, Anti-Griddle, smoking gun
“I call this a Sticky Toffee Pudding but in fact it’s a regular date cake made from flour, butter, eggs and date puree. It’s the combination of toffee sauce, pieces of honeycomb, salty coffee cookies, smoked chocolate powder, and chocolate sand made from white clay, that makes you think you’re eating Sticky Toffee Pudding. By pouring cinnamon and honey milk over some dry ice in a receptacle, the two elements’ reaction creates this extra fizz, the wow factor, which you can’t recreate at home.”
Marc Wilkinson, head chef at Fraiche, Oxton
Speciality dish: Fennel snow made using an anti-griddle and immersion blender
Equipment of choice: Anti-Griddle, plancha, claromax
“We make a fennel extract using a juicer, season it up and add a bit of acidity to it. We then set the juice on the Anti-Griddle to freeze, before powdering it in an immersion blender. The end result is this really light and fresh fennel snow, and because it freezes so quickly it doesn’t crystallize as much, so it still tastes fresh.”